Fish and Shellfish

Don’t be frightened by fish. Not so long back, you might have thought you needed to be a star in the kitchen to be able to handle the slinky creatures of the deep and not so deep. I say baaagh to that. Certainly it is not true to suggest that all fish are the same and respond to similar cooking methods, but the variations are not so great as to require volume after volume on method and counter-method.

The secret to cooking fish is to start simply and to keep it simple. Make sure that the fish you buy is fresh as fresh and that you maintain that freshness, its true flavour, its essential moistness. Never cook it earlier than the moment of service, never serve it with fruit, dismiss any ideas of serving it with meat (whoever invented surf’n'turf should be slow-cooked with chillies and garlic), and never whack it in a chicken (viz: chicken stuffed with prawns — a waste of each).

Whatever you intend to serve with fish must be looked on as a flavour enhancer. A helper, an assistant to the main event. Fish has such a subtle flavour — except for the sardine, perhaps — that it should never be overwhelmed. The Japanese method of preparing fish may well be the best way to taste its true flavour — raw, with a little black pepper, oil and lemon juice (although I think you have to be Japanese to enjoy its usual accompaniment, wasabi, the green fiery horseradish of Japan).

But that doesn’t mean that the best way to enjoy fish is to munch it in its natural state. There are few things better than the flavour and texture — and never underestimate the texture — of superbly cooked fish. Cook it in a little bubbling water, with a slice or two of lemon; bake it, after dredging with flour; and how can you beat one of the oldest and simplest of dishes – fish, dredged in a little flour, hit hard in a very hot pan, turned and served with melted butter, lemon juice and pepper, all brought together in the same pan?

What you’ll need


A friendly relationship with your local fishmonger. You’ll know how good the fishmonger is by the dullness of his eyes. The eyes of the fish should sparkle; the eyes of the supplier should be tired, on the edge of sleep. The best of the fish people are up hours before dawn and they’re still going at the fall of the sun. These are your most trusted friends, picking out the freshest fish of the catch, caring for it, filleting it for you, steering you in the right direction. Most of them spend their lives doing it. They are rather special, different people, anxious to assist. So don’t be afraid to ask a simple, vital question when in doubt: ‘What’s fresh today?’


A rather solid bank account. Fish are generally not cheap these days, some of that because of fashion, some of it because of the scarcity of the product. But you can get bargains if you shop wisely. The trick is to buy whatever is cheapest and most plentiful. Pretty easy to remember that. If there’s plenty of it, you can be sure it’s running freely and the fishers have missed out at auction. Keep an eye out for specials, and don’t go to the fish shop with a list. Buy what’s bright-eyed and cheap, unless you’re looking at the fishmonger. And don’t be afraid to ask for a close look. Sometimes the special lights in the shop can trick you.


Eye-brow tweezers for the sole purpose of removing pesky bones from all sorts of fish. Every time I use them I wonder how some women, and the odd man, can put themselves through such agony. And why painted eyebrows anyway? What would Bob Menzies have looked like with thinly painted brows? But, in the end, thank heavens for vanity. If somebody hadn’t decided thin eye-brows were hip, we would have had to invent tweezers to pick out the tiny bones in fish.


A very sharp knife. You should have a sharp, heavy knife for all cooking, but you must have a knife you like for fish. It doesn’t have to be a boning knife, but a flexible knife of that style will certainly help. Keep it sharp, and it will open a whole new form of cooking and showmanship for you.


Good organisation. There is really nothing to cooking fish. No special skills are needed, no whizzo- wacko gizmos. The organisation comes with the extras you intend to serve. Make sure they’re all ready. Remember, the fish will cook in a flash.


Herbs, fresh from the garden. A simply steamed or poached fish, a twist of lemon and a splash of redolent herbs – the dish of a three- star chef.


Respect for the level of your cholesterol. Fish is such a delight on its own, without splashes of oil or butter, that it is a marvellous boon for those of us with little discipline when it comes to dieting. Just serve it as it is.


No respect for your cholesterol level. Fish is such a delight when tossed with melted butter, it makes a mockery of all diet disciplines. Once you’ve tasted it moistened with melted butter, or with a touch of hollandaise or bearnaise sauce,
you keep hankering for it. If you’re sensible, you’ll read point 7, then point 8, then 7, then 8 …


A heavy-based pan which can go in the oven. The simplest way to ensure moist fish is to hit it in a hot pan for about 30 seconds, then commit the lot to the oven for a couple of minutes. Moist and tender.


And be aware that cooking times for fish can vary markedly from fish to fish, from day to day. The times listed are thereabouts — it depends on the power of your oven and the thickness of the fish. After a while, you’ll know exactly when fish is done, by looking at it. In the meanwhile, check regularly, pushing your finger into the fish to test its consistency and how it changes, minute by minute. And if you are cooking in the oven, remove the fish when it is underdone: it will keep cooking in its retained heat.

What you don’t need


A microwave is a marvellous kitchen tool, and will forever hold a special place in my kitchen. But I can’t see the point in cooking fish in the microwave. Fish in the microwave means exact timing, and countdowns are not part of my cooking needs. Fantasy and flair in the beginning, sight and feel in the end. And if you tell me fish cooks quickly in the microwave — how long does it take in the oven?


A fish kettle looks great as a kitchen ornament and is marvellous for that annual cook-off of the lucky catch of big snapper, but you can do without it. Too expensive.